Veganism as a Sociological Challenge to Dominant Social Norms

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Veganism is a hugely contested idea which began to gain recognition when the Vegan Society was founded in 1944. The Vegan Society may have been established 78 years ago, there is evidence suggesting it can be traced back much further. Early philosophies dating back to 500 BCE, as mathematician Pythagoras followed what can be described today as a vegetarian diet and discussed the importance of benevolence towards all species. Veganism is defined by The Vegan Society as 'a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude -as far as is possible and practicable- all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.' In dietary terms, it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals' (The Vegan Society, 2022). As veganism continues to spread throughout the West in particular, it has gained an increased amount of sociological interest, as we are able to examine veganism as it continues to evolve.

As veganism is a relatively newer concept within wider society, there is a research gap which is beginning to gain interest among sociologists and it is already clear there are gradually more studies being conducted into non-human animals and philosophies regarding them. The transparency and openness of sociology enable us to use pre-existing theories and apply it to other sociologically important topics such as veganism as a way of broadening our understanding and influencing how they develop moving forward. Due to this, we are able to link sociological theory which was originally created on the basis of human animals and apply it in regards to non-human animals.

The 'promise of sociology' was a concept created by sociologist C. Wright Mills in 1959 in which he discusses the idea that sociology is able to highlight the wider structural links between an individual's biography, and the historical context in which they are shaped. Although much of sociology focuses on the experiences of humans within society, the rise of animal sociology and veganism has played a vital role in emphasizing the idea that non-human animals have a role within society. We are able to use sociology to highlight the roots of issues regarding non-human animals, as well as criticize the further construction of our knowledge and views that are further contributing to the mistreatment and oppression of non-human animals.

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Furthermore, we can argue that Veganism and Marxism are quite similar, under neoliberalism Non-humans are often viewed as commodities, with this especially the case in regards to the meat industry where non-human animals are seen merely as objects or products used to make a profit rather than living things. This being one of the more brutal forms of exploitative capitalism that were written by sociologist Karl Marx, in which we can explore the sociology behind non-human animals and examine non-human animal labor in a similar way to human labor. Like humans, a Marxist would argue that non-human animals are exploited to the furthest point possible, most of our meat in the West comes from factories rather than farms, where animals are slaughtered and stuck upon lines to be processed. Our meat industry would arguably be a Marxist nightmare, looking past the killing of animals, the labor, or life of each animal is exploited fully for the benefit of the employers. The only distinction between the writings of Karl Marx is that animals are not human, therefore although Marx did not write about non-human animals explicitly, we are able to use his sociological ideologies in order to widen our understanding of why veganism is sociologically important.

The sociological exploration into vegan identities has opened a new path for a variety of new studies, for example in recent years there have been studies conducted which explored the everyday lives of vegans in relation to their identities (Cole and Morgan, 2011). These studies have led to suggest that vegans are forced to continuously reposition themselves relative to the dominant societal norm of eating meat, as well as to the social structures of capitalism. The dominant views that infiltrate through society, in particular the West, are ingrained within the micro and macro political and social structures, thus leading those who adopt a differing lifestyle to be labeled as deviant.

Although the ultimate goal is to have veganism widely accepted throughout society through the shared goal of reducing the suffering of non-human animals and advocating for a more compassionate society by avoiding products made from these animals, it can be argued that many vegans recognize there is an inability for this to happen instantly, and instead be a gradual process, allowing society to adapt. The definition of veganism by the Vegan Society is suggestive that it is a lifestyle of exclusion from certain products, rather than the expansion of an individual's food choices to include a wider range of plant-based foods. This negative phrasing supports the idea that society requires time to process and transition into new concepts, which we can argue is therefore recognized by institutions such as the Vegan Society.

Furthermore, the meme culture and constant belittling towards veganism shows it is predominantly viewed in the West as a comical practice which isn't taken seriously by those who do not identify as vegan, however, more often we are seeing satirical and sarcastic comebacks from vegans and their allies as a method of challenging the negative views towards veganism and its practices. Through critically challenging these informal conversations regarding veganism, vegans are in turn challenging these discourses and creating a new lens in which we can view society.

The application of sociological theory enables us to highlight the major issues regarding the treatment of non-human animals within society and as veganism continues to grow we are able to see society gradually transitioning to accompany the views of those who practice the lifestyle. A hypothetical pathway is being created to ease people into accepting veganism and making positive lifestyle choices towards it without being disproportionately harmed when new economies and food systems are transitioned. Changes within society in regards to veganism can be seen through the introduction of new laws related to non-human animals, such as The Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act, which was originally passed in 1958 in the United States, then amended in 1978, which requires animals to be 'stunned into unconsciousness prior to being slaughtered, in order to minimize pain' (Animal Legal Defence Fund). Although this can be viewed as an advancement in the recognition for the welfare and treatment of non-human animals, it is still clear that they do not receive the necessary treatment if it is at the cost of the human. A clear example of this is the above action does not protect birds such as chickens and turkeys, even though they feel pain just like other non-human animals. Although there has been an influx of laws protecting non-human animals over the years, which aim to protect non-human animals from any mistreatment, it is evident that as non-human animals are not viewed as equal within society with humans, there is more freedom to pick and choose which animal rights laws to abide by, with it being easier to go unnoticed. For example, it has been found that enforcement of laws such as The Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act has been found by government inspectors to be 'inconsistent' (Animal Legal Defence Fund).

It is important that society continues to pay attention to non-human animals, as because they are sentient it warrants the need for humans to raise awareness and drive attention towards them as they are unable to do so for themselves. The positive changes that have already been implemented within society such as new laws, new sociological research, and increased accessibility to animal-free products show us that the vegan movement has already had an effect on society and will arguably continue to do so. Although many people within society choose to maintain an omnivorous diet, the growth in veganism in society and the increased awareness created regarding the treatment and welfare of non-human animals in the West particularly, has in turn led to an increase in sociological focus on non-human animals and how they affect the society we live in. Although there is no one specific reason, it is clear that the sociological importance of veganism is that it enables us to therefore further expand sociology to include non-human animals and allows us to continue to gain a better understanding of society.

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